Is spiritual life a supplement or a complement to material life?
Answer Summary: Neither; ultimately spiritual life is a replacement for material life. However, prior to that, initially it is a supplement that we tentatively explore. And intermediately it becomes a complement as we realize its vitality and indispensability.
Answer: Let’s look at these three attitudes towards spiritual life one-by-one:
1. Initially as a supplement to material life:
When we know little or nothing about spiritual life, we consider our material life to be all-important. We want to be wealthy, successful and famous, and to enjoy the many pleasures that our materialistic culture glamorizes. When the struggle for fulfilling these material desires drains us, we may explore spiritual life as a possible stress-reliever. At this stage, we see spiritual life as an optional addition to material life. If we are fortunate, we come to an authentic and accessible spiritual path, the path of bhakti-yoga as the Bhagavad-gita (07.16) indicates. When we experience relief and rejuvenation through spiritual practices like meditation, prayer and yoga, our faith in the potency of spiritual life deepens and propels us to deeper enquiry.
2. Intermediately as a complement to material life:
Our experience-based faith in spiritual life stimulates our serious intellectual inquisitiveness: How and why do spiritual practices provide such healing? To find the answers, we delve into books of wisdom like the Bhagavad-gita. Therein, we learn that our present existence intrinsically has two dimensions: material and spiritual. We are spiritual beings, souls, residing in material bodies, as the Gita (02.13) states. We understand that both our sides need nourishment. Just as physical malnourishment makes our body weak and vulnerable to harmful germs, spiritual malnourishment makes our heart weak and vulnerable to harmful emotions like selfishness, greed, arrogance, irritability, insensitivity and jealousy. As long as we remain infected by such emotions, we always feel dissatisfied and incomplete, no matter how much we succeed in our material life. Because spiritual practices free us from those emotions and immunize us from their future attacks, they offer us reliable and repeatable relief. By this philosophical understanding, we become convinced that spirituality is indispensable for healthy and happy living. Thus we see spiritual life as a complement to material life.
3. Ultimately as a replacement to material life:
As spiritual beings, we don’t belong to the material world where misery and mortality are unavoidable, as the Bhagavad-gita (08.15) indicates. We belong to an eternal, ecstatic world, the personal abode of Krishna, wherein we delight in eternal love with him. Everything there is spiritual, so there’s no material life there. We attain that world by diligently practicing spiritual life and developing pure love for Krishna. Thus, spiritual life ultimately becomes a replacement for material life.
Of course, we can’t artificially or prematurely replace material life with spiritual life. As long as we have a material body, we have to take care of it and need to function in the material world.
But bhakti-yoga is such an inclusive path that it spiritualizes even our material life. By using our material resources to serve Krishna, we can spiritualize them – not in composition but in application. Though they may still be composed of material things, being used for Krishna’s service they become tools that take us closer to Krishna, as do spiritual things. In fact, they also become tools that help us bring others closer to Krishna. Thus in application, they function like spiritual things and in that sense become spiritualized. Bhakti-yoga thus enables us to pay due attention to both our material and spiritual life while integrating both into an individually relishable and socially beneficial expressway back to Krishna.
By initially exploring spiritual life as a supplement to material life and subsequently practicing it lifelong as a complement, we can ultimately relish its complete fruit as a replacement to material life.